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Backstage: ‘You, Nero’ at Arena Stage; ‘Much Ado’ at Shakespeare Theatre

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“He’s a monster,” said Danny Scheie of Nero, his character in “You, Nero,” which opens at Arena Stage on Nov. 25. “He’s gone wild. He’s paranoid and ruthless and wrong and has no moral core.”

“You, Nero” was written by playwright Amy Freed with Scheie in mind. Not that she thinks Scheie a wild, paranoid, ruthless monster with no moral core. Just that she thought he’d be good at pretending to be one.

“The mix of being just exuberant and preening and utterly evil was something I thought he could do like no one else,” Freed said. “He brings an incredible love of language . . . and his unique and eccentric sense of humor.”

“It’s such a dream come true for an actor,” said Scheie of the custom-made character. “To have a playwright of [Freed’s] stature write a play for you is . . . a thing that I wouldn’t have even dared to dream.”

“You, Nero” is the fictionalized story of Nero, the Roman emperor, who wanted a personal playwright to further his propaganda. The writer, appropriately named Scribonius, would rather create world-changing art than pro-emperor hype, and brings Nero a series of plays that he hopes can accomplish both goals.

Freed is one of Arena Stage’s Resident Playwrights. The experience with Arena, she said, has been liberating: “I haven’t felt like this since grad school.” The gig also puts her in close proximity with other playwrights, whom she would otherwise rarely see. “Actors work with each other every time they do a play. Playwrights don’t, so this is fantastic.”

She believes her “You, Nero” antihero can win audience approval just as naturally as a good-hearted protagonist. “Every evil person, of course, is completely convinced they’re right. You enter their warped reality with them,” she said. “Evil people do exactly what they want, and none of us can. I think secretly we sort of root for it because it’s a vessel for our own repressions. It’s not like our human nature wants to seem them punished. We want to see them succeed.”

The play is just as much an escape as it is a catalyst for self-examination. “The title is a pretty glaring hint at how to look at the play,” Freed said. “What does that Nero personality have to do with us?”

Scheie agreed. “Washington, D.C., is, for better or worse, to our world today what Rome was to the ancient world. It’s the seat of a big, huge unwieldy empire that perhaps is overreaching. . . . And what is the role of art in a world like that?”

Nov. 25 to Jan. 1, 1101 Sixth St. SW, www.arenastage.org, 202-554-9066

‘Much Ado’ in Cuba

Even though Romeo and Juliet might be the go-to reference for romantic love, director Ethan McSweeny is more of a Beatrice and Benedick fan. Because, well, Juliet is a 12-year-old girl. And Beatrice is not.

“I like Beatrice and Benedick because they’re grown-ups,” he said. “They’re too experienced to not be skeptical about romantic love. . . . I think I’ve always identified with their skepticism and yet with the fact that, underneath, in order to be a cynic you have to be a believer.”

The McSweeny-directed production of “Much Ado About Nothing” opens Nov. 25 at the Shakespeare Theatre Company.

Beatrice (who will be played by Kathryn Meisle, instead of the originally cast Veanne Cox who left over “creative differences”) and Benedick (Derek Smith) are the classic example of opposites who attract. The man who is the ultimate guy’s guy. The woman who isn’t afraid to be smarter than he is.

STC’s production is set in Cuba in the 1930s. Which might sound like kind of a gimmick — sure, it’s Shakespeare, but there’s salsa and the mambo! — however McSweeny insists there’s a logic behind the location. A good setting “should draw out or amplify themes in the play and help you tell the story.”

In this case, some of the parallels are obvious: For instance, Sicily, the story’s original locale, is an island, as is Cuba. But the real resonance is a cultural one.

“You need a culture with a certain amount of machismo in it,” McSweeny said. “Where the men and the women have expectations of one another’s behavior.

“You know Beatrice and Benedick only have 90 lines together in the entire first act of the play? They spend more time talking about each other than to each other. It is a real culture where there’s a lot of gender-fication. . . . Women’s choices are a little limited to what men think those choices should be.”

There’s also the need for a looming threat of combat, or at least a “low-level conflict [with] a civil war quality,” said McSweeny, citing a “series of uprisings and revolts” that plagued Cuba in the 1930s.

“Part of my job is to provide an audience who has seen the play before with something they haven’t seen,” he said. But first-time viewers of “Much Ado” need not worry about missing the true Shakespeare experience. “It’s just as important to provide something for the audience members that have never seen the play with something that is authentically the play.”

Nov. 25 to Jan. 1, Sidney Harman Hall, 610 F St. NW, www.shakespearetheatre.org, 202-547-1122

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